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Claire Daly

Claire Daly may be a "new" name in jazz, but she’s hardly new to the music scene she’s been at it for nearly 30 years now. Daly’s accumulated a stunning array of compliments from the press. Like most professional musicians, she’s had to play her share of "pay the rent" gigs, but she’s never lost her heart for jazz. Daly’s discography as a leader began with the release of Swing Low on Koch Jazz in 1999, followed by her most recent release, Movin’ On (also on Koch, 2001). Indeed, Claire is moving on, finding a new creative pulse in the midst of her life’s transitions.

Claire talked with JazzReview from her home in New York on a warm, summer Friday afternoon. After a quick introduction, Claire gave us a hint of her musical personae by urging us on into the interview with an enthusiastic, "Let’s wing it!"

JazzReview: Claire, how did you get started in music?

Claire Daly: You know, the first thing that happened was I picked the alto saxophone, randomly, as an instrument to take lessons on in school. Shortly after that, I went to a big band concert with my father. He had brought home some tickets to see this big band extravaganza. It was 1971. It was not well attended it was a big place and there were mostly older people there. The music freaked me out! It just blew my head open, I was so excited. I laugh when I think about it because I remember standing on my chair screaming, like I was seeing the Beatles or something. I was twelve.

JazzReview: I understand that one of the bands you heard was the Buddy Rich Big Band.

Claire Daly: Yeah, Buddy Rich was the last band on the program. I remember the saxophone section standing up to take a soli and I left my body! I was screaming the sound of five saxophones playing a soli, for the first time, to someone who was headed for life in this music. I had never experienced anything like it.

JazzReview: It sounds like you were sort of transfixed by the whole thing.

Claire Daly: [Laughing] That’s an understatement. I had my mind blown in that one night.

JazzReview: Did you know, after that night? Was that the spark that said to you, "I gotta do this for a living," or was it still too early?

Claire Daly: Well, I said it that night. You know, I like dragged my father around to get autographs at the stage door. I was getting autographs and I was watching them all get on the bus. The whole life just appealed to me, so essentially, what I said that night was I would do anything to be on that bus.

JazzReview: What did your dad think about that? Was he a jazz fan himself?

Claire Daly: {Laughing] I think he was really amused. I also think that the way he was, he would have been supportive of probably whatever I had decided to do in life. He was cool. He liked jazz when he was in college and during his adult life, but he got the tickets to these things because I had taken an interest in it.

JazzReview: I know you’ve been asked this question a million times, but I’m obligated to explore "the baritone sax question." It’s obviously a less common instrument chosen for jazz, at least as a solo instrument and even less common an instrument chosen by a woman. What led to the discovery of the baritone sax as your instrument?

Claire Daly: Again, one of those epiphany moments. I had been playing alto, tenor and soprano already. I tried a baritone and I just loved it. Immediately I knew that it was my voice. It was just one of the moments, you know.

JazzReview: What is still challenging to you about the instrument, if anything?

Claire Daly: Ah! If anything? If everything! Carrying it around is probably the most burdensome challenge, and I say that half-jokingly. The schlepping is hard. Anybody who is a baritone player is like an acoustic bass player. Anybody who is out there playing this instrument is doing it because they are extremely driven to play it. Otherwise, the flute would be nice, or the soprano maybe, but then I’d have to listen to it. I got over that because I love the baritone so much. Now obviously everything else about it I will be challenged by this instrument for the rest of my life. Playing it, learning the instrument, learning the music that will never be finished.

JazzReview: Tell us about your practice routine.

Claire Daly: My first thing, when I sit down to practice, is long tones. I love playing long tones. It’s ridiculous. It’s the thing everybody hates to do, but I love it! That is always the first thing I’ll do when I sit down to play. And then, actually the best instruction I got I think it was from Lenny Pickett [long time saxman and leader of the Tower of Power horn section] who said, "Split your practice into thirds. One-third long tones and sound (overtones, that kind of thing); one- third scales, technique, mechanics; and one-third music." So if you only have 15 minutes, you do 5 minutes of each of those things. If you’ve got six hours, do two hours of each of those things. I sort of go with that it’s kind of my plan. It depends on how much time I have in any given day.

JazzReview: I’m sure most musicians under-emphasize that first third, as you said, "the long tones."

Claire Daly: I tell my students, "You can have all the technique in the world, you can know every mathematical possibility, and you can be a genius about music. But, if you have a crappy sound, nobody’s going to want to listen to you." I hear it, out there in the world. I’ll hear somebody play and I’ll think, "Gee, they know a lot. If only they had a sound."

JazzReview: Do you feel that a lot of younger musicians today tend to emphasize technique more than sound and harmonics? Maybe it has always been true that there are some players who focus more on technique than sound.

Claire Daly: I think that has always existed, but I think the academic world has created more of that you know, jazz music more as an academic study, which allows for that to happen more.

JazzReview So maybe as you said, it produced more emphasis on the mathematics of the music as opposed to the pure emotional dimension and the sound.

Claire Daly: Yeah, you’ve got to balance it all. That’s the trick. This other element that I miss, if somebody’s playing 4,000 notes a second and it’s all in perfect technique, is personality. That’s what I want to hear. My favorite compliment, really, is when people say they can hear a sense of humor in my music. That’s when I’ve accomplished something. That’s my idea of a jazz musician, expressing themself through the music. I want a sense of the person who’s playing the music, more so than I care if they’re flawless.

JazzReview: Is there some particular aspect of your playing that you are working on right now? Is it technique, sound?

Claire Daly: I would say technique, because maybe I haven’t focused on that as much as I’d have liked to in the past. Yeah, working on a little technique but not too much because there’s that other thing, you know, of somebody who’s all technique ewww!

JazzReview: So you fell in love with the baritone sax, but what about jazz? I know you were in a rock band for a while. Tell us about the "jazz versus rock" thing.

Claire Daly: I don’t know how to state that clearly. There’s room for a lot of things in a life. I grew up liking jazz and rock music, liking a lot of really different kinds of music. I’ve always been one of those people who say, ‘It’s all music.’ I don’t like to have to categorize what I like. I like good music, but I wanted to be a jazz musician. When I got out of Berklee in 1980, I thought I was going to go off and have a jazz life, but I got in a rock band because that is where the work was. Not being a ‘trust fund’ kid, I had to work.

JazzReview: Was that the rock band "Dish" that you played in?

Claire Daly: Eventually. This was another band, but we left that band and formed Dish. Dish was fun. It was a funky rock band. I was on the road with this rock band, working in clubs five to seven nights a week and traveling around from our base in Boston. But, even at that time I was taking lessons with Charlie Binacos. I was practicing jazz stuff and living life on the road. That’s a whole other jazz education, or rock education, or whatever.

JazzReview: As a 12 year-old saying, "I want to be on the bus," did it turn out to be anything like what you had imagined?

Claire Daly: [Laughing] It never does, does it? That’s actually a funny realization I’ve had many times in my musical life. The first time it happened, I was playing a rock gig on Nantucket at the Chicken Box, which is this funky, local bar in a wild part of town. We used to play there regularly, you know, like a couple of times a summer. I was only about 21 or something. There was this kind of nutty old guy there and I remember him saying "So did you always want to be a musician?" and I was like, "Yeah." And he said "So did you always want to make people dance?" and I was like, "I guess." And then he said, "And did you always want to make people happy, and touch them with music?" He asked me all these really deep questions and he just kept going. I was like, "Yes, yes!" Finally he said, "Look, your dream’s come true." He was right he was right. I was so blown away by that. I’ve had that realization many times since.

JazzReview: Let’s talk a little bit about your time at Berklee and who the influential musicians were in your thinking and playing jazz.

Claire Daly: Woo-hoo, George Garzone, my hero, man! I had been into big band and then smaller band, straight-ahead music. That was pretty much my grasp on jazz. I’d seen a lot of the greats and I did have a good foundation. I was up at Berklee a few months and my best friend Willie said "Oh my God you’ve got to come here. There is this band, ‘The Fringe.’ They’re outrageous and you’ve never heard anything like it." So we prepared ourselves and went to see them. These three guys proceded to play George Garzone, Rich Appleman on bass at the time, and Bob Gullotti on drums, and they played free music. They had been playing together for several years. I did not understand what I was hearing at all, but I was completely grabbed by it and knew that I needed to come back again. So I came back to hear The Fringe every Monday for about a year. After a year, the guy who owned the bar, Michael, said, "Do you want to work here? You’re here every Monday anyway." So I became the Monday night bartender at this beer and wine joint. It was a riot and so much fun.

The Fringe is Garzone doing his thing. It’s a cordless trio bass, drums, and tenor (and sometimes soprano). They are really something else. They’ve been together for almost 30 years and they’re incredible. George is on my first record [Swing Low, Koch Records, 1999] as my guest. When [George is] playing with other people, it’s always unique and wonderful. But, when George is in The Fringe, it’s a really outstanding setting and something to check out. George was a teacher at Berklee at the time, so over the years I took some lessons with him. I was in his ensembles and we became good friends.

JazzReview: Was there something about what you heard him doing that has shown up in your own playing or influenced your thinking about music?

Claire Daly: His harmonic sensibility is extremely advanced. I don’t pretend to even be near his harmonic thing, but that really appeals to me. Boy, it’s really everything about his playing! He also studied with Joe Viola from the time he was twelve. Joe was also my teacher at Berklee and he was just a master in teaching about sound. George’s sound is breathtaking. It’s beautiful.

JazzReview: While you were at Berklee, what was the most important aspect of your musical development? Was it the education, the formal stuff, or was it the people you hung out with and heard playing?

Claire Daly: Very good question. I’ve thought about that. I think The Fringe [was key to my musical development]. When I left Boston, I felt like one of the reasons I came to that town was to hear this music. They really changed and shaped me. I do play out some times like avant- garde. I love it, although as life would have it, I don’t end up doing it in public a whole lot. But that music I think I’m going to hear that music when I leave this planet. I mean really! I find it just divinely inspired music.

Joe Viola was, without a doubt, one of the great masters of the saxophone. Many people studied with Joe Viola. He was brilliant. And many of the people that I met at Berklee are still my friends. You know, you just go through life crossing paths with these people over and over again. That’s a wonderful connection. When I think about the people in my life who are really important to me, a lot of them have come from that period of time.

JazzReview: After Berklee, somewhat out of necessity, you got into a rock band, then left that band and start Dish. So there you are, having studied formally and in your head you had this jazz thing going on but you’re in a rock band, doing the rock thing. What was that like?

Claire Daly: It was a lot of fun, you know, when you’re twenty-something. It wasn’t like I was the "jazz police" when I was 21. I was having a good time. We schlepped our own equipment. We had a truck, carting the Fender Rhodes in and out of places. They’d put us up in these funky motels, but it really was fun. I always managed to keep one night a week in town. I seemed to be able to find those restaurant jazz gigs, which sort of helped balance that. If I am only playing one type of music, I tend to want to do a little of the other. Like if I’m just playing all straight ahead, I somehow just want to stomp my booty. I like to play funk and I like rock. I mean that’s too broad a category, it’s not like I’m listening to Metallica here. There’s a lot of stuff that I like. When I was in the rock band, I needed to somehow balance that with even a polite jazz restaurant gig.

JazzReview: You’re now playing in the "jazz channel," so how do you balance yourself now?

Claire Daly: It’s funny. I’ve had a hankering lately to play in a section in a funk band. I’d love to just have some work with four or five horns. That seems like it would be really fun. The only thing I do now that has some rock or funk in it are club dates here in New York. I walked by the Apollo Theatre yesterday. I was up in Harlem and saw that George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic was coming and I thought ‘I’d love to go to that,’ but it was a week I was going to be out of town teaching at a camp. I like it all, I really do.

JazzReview: Many have written a lot of really nice things about your playing. I just wonder how that hits you. You have all these people writing cool stuff and you’re placing high in various polls. How does that affect you as a player and musician?

Claire Daly: It scares the stuff out of me! I just feel like there is so much more to learn, and so much further to go. If I put too much importance on that stuff, I might not stretch. I would hate to think I had ‘arrived’ somewhere in this journey, which I really see as a lifetime journey. I’m going to hear Jim Hall tonight. What better example of what a life journey music is. He [Hall] is always growing and learning, and listening and simplifying. He’s a hero to me.

JazzReview: So it sounds like you’re taking a really long-range perspective on your musical career.

Claire Daly: Yeah. It’s really nice to be acknowledged in the positive ways I have been, and I do, from the bottom of my heart, appreciate that. But, I will do this for my whole life [even] if I’m doing it by myself in my living room. I can’t hinge one on the other. For all these very nice reviews that I’ve gotten, that stuff can turn any second and you can fall out of favor at any moment. I can’t hinge what I’m doing on whether I’m being accepted or not.

JazzReview: And I’m sure that’s not what drew you into the business in the first place imagining the good things that people would write about you.

Claire Daly: Right. You know, I think you get sort of blindly led into the music ‘business’ because it’s the music that appeals. To most of the people, I know it’s the music that pulls us in, and the business is just something that you have to deal with.

JazzReview: Let’s shift gears a bit and talk about your latest release as a leader, Movin’ On. You’ve talked before about the influence of the loss of your mother on how you thought about the project and the songs you chose. I wonder if there were any other changes between your first CD and this one, in terms of how you approached doing the recording?

Claire Daly: I approached Movin’ On totally differently. The first one was me saying ‘I need to do something as a leader.’ Something in me knew I needed to do that. I just thought of a bunch of tunes that I’ve always liked and thought, ‘Oh I’d love to record that tune.’ In my mind I would think that thought, but then I’d think, ‘Oh I’ll never do a recording.’ So by the time I got ready to do a recording, I just picked a bunch of tunes that I loved. I carefully picked my band, [people] who I consider to be really terrific musicians and understated. It was a big love fest. It just flowed very naturally, making that record. I made it honestly thinking, ‘Nobody is ever gonna hear this except for my friends anyway.’ I thought I was going to use them for Christmas presents. Really, I’m not kidding. It wasn’t a big pressure situation at all. I felt very creative and was just having a good time.

The second one...I had been through this family dysfunction. I had really gotten depressed and I wasn’t doing much. I was really having to ‘suit up’ to do my ‘make a living’ gig. In a way, I was going down the tubes. And some point I decided, I’m either gonna sink or swim here. It took as much action as I could to pull myself out of this hole I had gotten into. It was at that point I decided I was going to make a record. My original idea was to do a record about road songs, nd while I was looking for road songs, I kept finding these songs about goodbyes. I would think ‘Oh well, that could be road song, because on the road you’re saying goodbye a lot.’ At some point it became obvious this was the goodbye album, not a road song album. I did feel like I was leaving aspects of my life. I had decided to move on. I had made that choice, so there was much more ‘baggage’ around this record, if you will. It was much harder to make this record than the first one.

JazzReview: It sounds like it was a lot more emotionally taxing and involved.

Claire Daly: Yes, well said thank you.

JazzReview: How about recording itself? There’s the process of conceiving the album, and feeling like it is something you needed to do because of what you were going through at that time... but now you’re in the studio playing. What was that like playing in the studio?

Claire Daly: Okay, yeah. Well, I had two days in the studio. I did the first record in six hours; I did this one in 12 hours. I’m of the belief that a record is a record of what you sound like on a certain day. I’m not into taking along time with production. I’d rather rehearse the band as much as possible, be really clear about what’s going to go on it, and [then] go in [to the studio] and play. To me, that is what jazz records are like. That’s what I like about jazz records. There’s an honesty about that. You get things kind of ‘warts and all.’ You can tweak a little bit, but the way we did it, you can’t really change too much. So the pressure’s on a little bit because you’ve got two days to do your thing. The first day was incredibly fun. I remember it being kind of light and it felt good. On the second day in the morning, I think I was having a discussion with a lawyer like maybe a screaming fight with a lawyer. It really bugged me, but I was like ‘I’m going to go do this anyway.’ That’s probably why it’s a little denser. This record is more dense than the first one just because some of that drama came up around it. In a perfect world, you know, I would have gotten up, had a massage or something, and then gone into the studio and done a couple of tunes. I was producing it pretty much myself, so it was all right. We got into it, and did okay.

JazzReview: So the band you chose for Movin’ On, a couple of these guys were also with you on your first CD, Swing Low, right?

Claire Daly: Yes, same rhythm section. On Swing Low, George Garzone was my guest, and on this one, James Zollar was the trumpet player.

JazzReview: How did you meet James?

Claire Daly: I’ve known James for a long time. We were in Saheb Sarbib’s big band together. He’s just a delightful player and a great person. I love him!

JazzReview: You did a couple of vocals on Movin’ On. What inspired that? Is that a spark of something you are interested in exploring more, or was it just sort of a lark?

Claire Daly: You know, it was both of those things. It was sort of a lark, but it’s something that I do on gigs. I will sing standards on gigs sometimes usually on gigs where nobody’s listening! It is something that I enjoy, but I’m sort of hesitant to say it.

JazzReview: Do you hear any of your saxophone playing in your singing?

Claire Daly: Oh, I don’t you know, but [with] horn playing and singing, the relationship is strong. I love singing and I might do more of it.

JazzReview: Where you see yourself going, any new directions you want to explore?

Claire Daly: Well, I do seem to be in a kind of creative time right now. Donald Elfman has left Koch, the label I’ve been on. He was my person there. I’ve been through some other personal changes let me put it this way: a lot that I’ve been attached to for the last 10 years or more has just fallen off. So, my life feels sort of like a blank page right now. While that is unnerving in certain ways, it is also invigorating.

JazzReview: So these changes are bringing sparks of some new things.

Claire Daly: Well I hope so! That’s my plan. I’m an improviser. You gotta roll with the punches, you know? On any given day I may be more or less optimistic, but I do feel very excited. I’m going out and I’m hearing a lot of music. I’m so grateful that music is in my life. I find it very healing, very inspiring. It serves many purposes for me.

JazzReview: Are there some particular types of musical directions that are bubbling around, that you want to explore?

Claire Daly: Good question and I would say what’s old is new again. I’m playing more ‘out’ music with friends. It’s a wonderful expression, a wonderful outlet for emotion. I’ve always loved all kinds of music funk, out, straight-ahead. I would like to deepen my own harmonic sense. As a result of the other things going on in my life, I didn’t book the summer with a lot of festivals, so I’m kind of doing my ‘make a living’ gigs, and I’ve got some time to work on some stuff. I’m hoping to deepen my straight-ahead playing, out stuff, funk. I’m not terribly interested in blazing a new trail here. I could go so much deeper in what I already like.

I would add that having a ‘musical hobby’ is really fun, when I’m not doing it for any other purpose, but the fun of playing. For example, I love the bass. I have an acoustic and an electric bass and I’m thinking it would be really fun to play electric bass in a rock band you know, not tell anybody, just go have fun! I have a real low-note thing. I have what I call ‘low note disease.’ I’m into that frequency and it works for me. So I’m thinking a little rock-n-roll bass it’s all about the groove, I love the groove.

JazzReview: You mentioned the summer festival season a moment ago I understand you are booked in to the Chicago Jazz Festival.

Claire Daly: Yeah, it’s really exciting because I’ve not been putting myself forward very well lately, and to get the email [invitation] was a thrill. I’ve been invited to play with [pianist] Eric Reed’s trio, plus a couple of horn players. I love Chicago. It’s a great city. I played there last year at Joe’s with the Gerry Mulligan tribute band. I just love the feel of Chicago.

JazzReview: Is there any particular area of your musical talent that we haven’t touched on yet that you would really like to develop further?

Claire Daly: You know, it’s funny I feel inspired to practice now, and as I said, to deepen what I do. But really, what I want to do in music is outside of myself. I really see it as a form of communication. Really what I want to do is reach people. Wanting to practice a lot is not so much about what I want to do. I want to practice so that the vessel is in good shape.

JazzReview: So you can be more pure in communicating what you want to say when you are playing, and not have anything about the playing be in the way of that.

Claire Daly: Yes, that’s it.

JazzReview: How about arranging and composing? Is that a dimension of music that you’re in to at all?

Claire Daly: Well it’s not really my thing [right now] but it could be. I’m not driven to be a writer, although I do like arranging. I see myself as being more inspired to arrange, than to write, at this point. That could change I know how to write music, and I have written. But I’m some kind of a dinosaur tunes freak I love tunes. There are so many great tunes that have been around for a long time. Just because I know how to write music, that doesn’t make me a writer. Just because a person knows how to write, they shouldn’t feel they have to write all their own music. That doesn’t always work for me.

JazzReview: You mentioned your love for finding tunes. Is there "secret process" for that you hear something and then you chase it down, or do you spend hours in the musical archives somewhere?

Claire Daly: I start looking through my old records and CDs. Listening to the radio. I don’t really go to the archives so much. The Lincoln Center library [in New York] is good, and I have gone there to look for stuff. Fake books are also a source I have some really good ones, and some people I know have collected them over the years. Those are fun to go look through, especially the really obscure ones.

JazzReview: When you have down time and you’re not focused on your own music, do you have any kind of music you enjoy purely for pleasure, that isn’t interesting to you professionally?

Claire Daly: Oh there’s a lot of that. I like a lot of stuff. For example, Edgar Meyer, the bass player he did these CDs with Mark O’Connor (violin) and the cellist and YoYo Ma. One of them is called Appalachian Journey. Really nice. It’s not a jazz record. That’s high on my listening list. I recently bought a new piece of furniture and had to move some of my records, and I noticed Joan Baez’s Diamonds and Rust. I love it! My albums are like old friends. I like dig back in to my old albums and put something on that I haven’t listened to in a really long time that’s always fun. You know, those favorite old albums when you listen to them, at the end of every cut, you know what the next cut starts with. It’s like you know the whole album as a body of work and you’ll know every scratch. That’s what I mean by the "old friend" factor like you want to say "Oh, YOU."

JazzReview: After listening to Movin’ On a few times, I think I know what Claire means. Check out Claire Daly’s work. I think her records will quickly become like "old friends" to you too.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Claire Daly
  • Subtitle: Movin’ On...
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